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Masking the Blow: The Scene of Representation in Late Prehistoric Egyptian Art.

On the cover of Masking the blow there is a photograph of part of the Narmer Palette, the protodynastic piece de resistance, long regarded as the ultimate image of the abrupt and mysterious transition from Egyptian prehistory to history. Davis is returning to a theme already briefly discussed in his earlier book The canonical tradition in Egyptian art (1989), the main subject of which was the art of the pharaonic period -- in this context the Narmer Palette was therefore taken to represent the beginnings of dynastic art.

In Masking the blow, the Narmer Palette reappears, this time as the final fling of the prehistoric tradition, since Davis is now looking simply at predynastic art, which he has rechristened 'late prehistoric' (apparently as a kind of politically correct way of avoiding the definition of one period in terms of its successor). He considers late prehistoric Egyptian art as a separate artistic phenomenon with its own aims and conventions owing little to the as-yet-uninvented full-blown pharaonic art.

The objects themselves are intrinsically fascinating, and Davis' radical approach -- whatever its flaws or merits -- breathes new life into the question of their meaning. Not since the work of Asselberghs (1961) has the corpus of late prehistoric palettes, mace-heads and knife-handles been subjected to such a fresh and holistic new study. The tendency in recent years has been to devote short papers to the interpretation of individual pieces or groups of pieces in comparative isolation (e.g. Churcher 1984; Williams & Logan 1987; Millett 1990). As an art historian on an altogether laudable crusade to haul Egyptology out of its traditional climate of pedantry and iconographic stamp-collecting, Davis treats the Narmer Palette, and the sequence of preceding predynastic palettes and knife-handles, as a kind of collective predynastic Rosetta Stone. Undaunted by the lack of any obvious archaeological equivalent of the Rosetta Stone's trilingual text or linguistic context -- for most of the major late prehistoric works of art have poor archaeological provenances or none at all -- Davis attempts to reach the minds of the artists through their images and thus to conjure some kind of sense out of the cognitive void of late prehistoric Egypt.

Jean Capart's Primitive art in Egypt, an early attempt to understand late prehistoric art (first published in French in 1903-4), represents perhaps the classic instance of the traditional Egyptological approach. Capart's work is very much of its time, peppered with such confident assertions as 'Primitive races paint almost the whole of their body' and 'The Australian always has a store of white clay, or of red and yellow ochre in his pouch' (Capart 1905: 21); but before we become too critical of Capart we should remember that Davis too is clearly of his time -- only a fully reconstructed post-processual archaeologist would reach the following flabby conclusion: 'My account of the archaeology of replications "masking the blow" is, I hope, as open as possible to various, equally necessary literal accounts to be produced by historians with differing skills, knowledge, and interests -- to the projections of all interpreters wanting to tell a story about the pastness of representation'. The 'pastness of representation'?

Capart's study may read like an iconographic shopping list, from knives and spoons to dwarfs and hippopotami, but Davis' late 20th-century yearning for empathy with the ancient mind produces chapter headings like crossword clues, such as 'Circling the scene' and 'Failing to see on contested ground'. Although the contents of Davis' chapters are rather less inscrutable than their titles, readers' assessments of Davis' success may well depend on their capacity to enter into the spirit of his distinctive (jargon-laden and long-winded) approach.

Davis' Big Idea can be crudely characterized as the interpretation of the imagery of prehistoric artworks in Egypt as dynamic elements of narratives which are concerned primarily with the artist in his role as hunter and killer (or vice versa). Thus the characteristic depictions of the late prehistoric Egyptian artist are interpreted as visual strategies by which the artist/hunter/king creeps up on his prey from behind, simultaneously revealing and concealing the death-blow (hence the book's title). This ingenious thesis certainly has the merit of marshalling together a rather disparate set of works of art into a kind of insight into the collective psyche of the late prehistoric Egyptian. But how convincing are the arguments -- and why should we believe Davis rather than Capart or Asselberghs?

In his eloquent ruminations on the history of art, Jean Capart inadvertently articulates some of my feelings about Masking the blow. 'We begin with vague terms, which we attempt by degrees to define, only to find on arriving at our first conclusion that there again is a term wanting a precision and requiring definition' (Capart 1905: 11). Davis' work is challenging and imaginative, but there is always the sneaking suspicion that his patchy late prehistoric database is more of a Phaestos Disc than a Rosetta Stone.

IAN SHAW Department of Archaeology University of Cambridge


ASSELBERGHS, H. 1961. Chaos en Beheersing: Documenten uit aeneolithisch Egypte. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

CAPART, J. 1905. Primitive art in Egypt. London: Grevel.

CHURCHER, C.S. 1984. Zoological study of the ivory knife handle from Abu Zaidan, in W. Needler, Predynastic and Archaic Egypt in the Brooklyn Museum: 152-68. Brooklyn (NY): Brooklyn Museum.

DAVIS, W. 1989. The canonical tradition in ancient Egyptian art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

MILLET, N. 1990. The Narmer macehead and related objects, Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 27: 53-9.

WILLIAMS, B. & T.J. LOGAN. 1987. The Metropolitan Museum knife handle and aspects of pharaonic imagery before Narmer, Journal of Near Eastern Studies 46: 245-84.
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Author:Shaw, Ian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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